How many senior moments have we seen the president of the United States struggle through? There was the time Joe Biden tried to shake hands with no one in particular. We saw him keel over on what was at the time a stationary bicycle. Americans watch Joe Biden deliver prepared remarks as they would watch a tightrope walker—through the gaps in between their fingers and with gritted teeth. And no presidential speechwriter ever compelled the president to describe anything as “cumalidefasredsulc.”
Such is the cult of the presidency that the first reaction to these and many, many similar episodes is often to dismiss their significance. If that fails to shame those who notice Biden’s apparent cognitive impairments into silence, the observant are subjected to calumny. “The smear that he’s lost it — that he’s cognitively impaired” is a “frequent explicit refrain within Republican-aligned media,” wrote Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein. “Including Trump.” Implicit in this brushback pitch is that those in elite circles who make note of the obvious jeopardize their status and, it logically follows, their livelihoods.
With some fleeting exceptions, this strategy has worked. But the cumulative weight of Biden’s malapropisms and malfunctions seem to have broken the backs of even the stoutest water carriers. That’s what we must conclude from the spontaneous uprising that erupted on Wednesday after Joe Biden stepped on one rhetorical landmine too many.
During the president’s remarks at a conference on hunger this week, Biden appeared to call on Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski to make herself known to the room. “Representative Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” Biden asked. “I think she wasn’t going to be here.” Indeed. As the president’s letter of condolences confirms, Congresswoman Walorski died last month in a terrible car accident that also claimed two of her staffers.
The episode would have been yet another in a series of similar cognitive events but for the reaction of the White House press corps. The impulse to provide the president and his courtiers with cover all but disappeared. Where once there was excuse-making, we were suddenly privy to pointed questions, grave concerns, and a steadfast refusal to accept the administration’s unconvincing extenuations.
“What happened here?” one incredulous reporter asked White House Press Sec. Karine Jean-Pierre. Biden was merely “acknowledging her incredible work,” the secretary replied. “She was on his mind—she was top of mind.” That explanation proved unsatisfying.
“If the late congresswoman was top of mind for the president, and her family was expected to be here, and that’s what the president was thinking about, why was he looking for her?” another reporter asked. When Jean-Pierre repeated her excuse for Biden’s misstatement and insisted that she didn’t find the episode “all that unusual,” the atmosphere in the briefing room soured.
“Frankly, I think the memory of the congresswoman and history requires some clarity here,” a third reporter pressed sharply. “Was the president confused? Was something written in the teleprompter that he didn’t recognize? Help us explain what happened here?”
“I think the confusing part is why if she and the family is top of mind does the president think she’s living, and, in the room,” yet another journalist remarked. Jean-Pierre forced a smile. “When you have someone top of mind, they are top of mind,” she chuckled. “I have John Lennon top of mind just about every day,” one agitated reporter rebutted, “but I’m not looking around for the man.”
To their credit, journalistic outlets declined to spit-polish the president’s performance. Gone was the impulse to contextualize his comments until viewers questioned the evidence of their own eyes. Most media played it straight. Biden “asks if deceased congresswoman is present,” observed CNN. “President Biden sought out deceased Rep. Jackie Walorski,” the Associated Press reported. “President Biden apparently forgot,” the New York Times conceded, “that Representative Jackie Walorski had died in August.”
The reliable impulse to run block for the president didn’t abate entirely. “I think what it really shows is this country is so ageist,” The View’s Sunny Hostin complained. “I think they need to stop weaponizing his age. I hate that about this country!” Apparently, the worst thing you could say of Biden’s remarks is that “it plays into a caricature that Republicans–led by former President Donald Trump–have long been painting of him,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza observed, noting that this “caricature” increasingly resonates beyond the Republican Party’s voting base.
Maybe the most heartbreaking attempt to excuse the president’s conduct was provided by Rep. Walorski’s brother. “All I’m saying right now about the president is bless his heart for trying,” Keith Walorski said of the president, who spoke with the Walorski family after his sister’s passing and was “very sincere.” The congresswoman’s bereaved brother added that the president is “doing the best he can do with what he’s got right now.”
That is gracious but hardly reassuring.
The revolt of the political press puts into sharp contrast the briefest of false dawns Democrats enjoyed in August. For a few short weeks, open speculation that the aging president would—indeed, must—decline to run for a second term in 2024 was replaced with triumphalism. As Politico’s John Harris explained, Biden’s summer of successes had largely put to bed concerns about the president’s acuity.
Today, the summer of “dark Brandon” has been supplanted by an autumn that’s just, well, dark. And as the press corps’ explosive reaction to this latest episode illustrates, the concerns about Biden’s mental state never disappeared. Papering over the left’s concerns about Biden’s age with showpiece legislation and constitutionally dubious executive orders didn’t work. Throwing brushback pitches at those on the right who merely notice Biden’s serial missteps hasn’t worked. And now, demands that media self-censor lest they advance Republicans’ political prospects have failed.
“Some people ask whether you are fit for the job,” CBS News host Scott Pelly asked Biden in a recent interview. “Watch me,” the president replied confidently. As my colleague Abe Greenwald remarked, that’s the problem. We are.